The contrasting choice of speakers are typical of a president who has walked a sometimes complicated path when it comes to religion — working to be inclusive to the point that critics at times have questioned his faith.
In a statement released by the inaugural committee, the president said the careers of Evers-Williams and Giglio “reflect the ideals that the Vice President and I continue to pursue for all Americans - justice, equality and opportunity.”
Obama will privately take the oath of office for his second term on the constitutionally mandated date of Jan. 20, a Sunday. But the public ceremony will be the next day, coinciding with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. In a statement issued by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, Evers-Williams said “it is indeed an exhilarating experience to have the distinct honor of representing” the civil rights era at the Jan. 21 event.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Evers, who was the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary at the time of his death. Myrlie Evers-Williams spent decades fighting to win a conviction of her late husband’s shooter, and served as chairman of the NAACP in the 1990s.
“I would imagine that even people who are made somewhat uncomfortable by the allusions to religion in such public moments will find an invocation by the widow of a martyr to be moving and poignant,” said author Jon Meacham, who has written on religion in American history. “This is as unifying a gesture as a president could make, it seems to me.”
The invocation comes at the start of the inaugural ceremony, and the benediction comes at the end. An inaugural official said Giglio was picked for the benediction in part because of his work raising awareness about modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Those were core issues at his most recent conference, Passion 2013, attended by more than 60,000 mostly young evangelicals in Atlanta.
“During these days it is essential for our nation to stand together as one,” Giglio said in a statement. “And, as always, it is the right time to humble ourselves before our Maker.”
Decades ago, few Americans paid attention to the clergy (always mainline Protestants) who stood on the podium with the incoming president, or the scripture upon which the president put his hand as he swore the oath of office. But as the country has become more politically polarized and religiously diverse, faith and politics have become far more explosive, and such official moments are now scrutinized.